A #backtothefutureday Annoyance

As today is, as everyone who has access to the Internet is aware, the date on which Marty McFly arrives in the future from 1985 in Back to the Future II, I was reminded of my one real problem with the Back to the Future films by a conversation about this with Philip Purser-Hallard.

To be clear, I enjoy the Back to the Future films. I think the first one is pretty good, the second one is excellent, and I can’t remember anything about the third except something about a steam train, even though I have it on DVD, but don’t remember thinking it was bad.

The films do, though, have a problem with race. There’s the stereotypical Arab terrorists and the stereotypical Japanese businessman, but those are pretty much par for the course in 1980s films (it could be worse — the pile of DVDs I got in the Network sale the other week reminded me just how acceptable blackface was in the 80s…) but the real problem is with the treatment of black people.

Now, the Back to the Future time-travel mechanic is simple — you go back to the past, you change the future. It’s a single, changeable, timeline, with no room in it for what Doctor Who apparently recently referred to as a “bootstrap paradox”. Which is actually fair enough, because a universe which allowed such things would also be one where the second law of thermodynamics didn’t apply, and so would have a second massive implausibility on top of the implausibility that is time travel.

And we know this is true — the Twin Pines becomes the Lone Pine, Marty’s dad has a different career, and so on. Going back into the past changes the present.

But there are two occasions — and only two — in the first film where that time-travel mechanic is broken, and Marty *causes* something that already existed in his time.

The first is when he gives a cleaner called Goldie Wilson the idea to stand as mayor — and we’ve seen Goldie Wilson *is* the mayor later on. (Indeed, that is often cited as another of the film’s problems with race, as it’s easy to see it as saying that electing Wilson, who is black, as mayor contributed to the town’s decay).

The second is when he plays Johnny B Goode, and Marvin Berry calls his cousin Chuck and lets him hear the “new sound” he’s been looking for.
Now, this is also a bit dodgy racially itself — while the common Internet narrative that white people “stole” black people’s music and built rock & roll around it is a little oversimplified, we can safely say that what *didn’t* happen is black copycats stealing white innovators’ ideas.

But what strikes me is that there are two points where the film’s internal logic breaks down. Neither of those points are necessary for the plot (the phone call could have been left out of the Enchantment Under the Sea section and all that would have been lost is a single joke, and the Goldie Wilson bit doesn’t even add that much). Both of them *completely* break the logic of the film. And they are also the only two points in the film where Marty interacts with black people.

I don’t think the people who made Back to the Future were *intentionally* racist, but the net result does seem to be a world where black people can only get ideas from white people, and where Marty McFly’s whitesaviourpowers are so great they can actually break the laws of time.

A shame, as this is quite a severe blemish on what is otherwise a very enjoyable film.

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14 Responses to A #backtothefutureday Annoyance

  1. I agree on the latter but not the former. Firstly, I never thought the basal present ‘Twin Pines’ town *was* run down (Marty’s father has problems with never having stood up to Biff Senior, but the town itself isn’t any more run down than any other 1980s town, and obviously far better than the Biffville varient in BtTF2) so I don’t see any reason to think Goldie Wilson is a bad Mayor (and he’s well liked enough that his grandson/grandaughter can be up for election about now). Secondly, it’s because Goldie’s success is pre-ordained (ie he would be running for Mayor even if Marty hadn’t prompted him, that we can see that he’s a go-ahead sort of upandcoming man by his own lights.) I think that bit is meant to read as 1980s Marty being more enlightened that Goldie’s 1955 boss, not 1955 Goldie needing the push-to-action, I agree completely on the Chuck Berry thing – Marvin should have called his cousin to complain that his act was already being ripped off!

    • prankster36 says:

      Yeah, I never read the town as being run down, and indeed, the Biffville timeline seems to exist precisely to demonstrate how much better it is than it *could* be…

    • Yeah, on further consideration the way to fix the logic is to assume that the black people would have had the ideas they did anyway, without Marty’s intervention, whereas the white people actually needed his help to fix their lives.

  2. Christian Taylor says:

    There actually is a (to my sensibilities) lovely Robot Chicken spoof that depicted Chuck Berry, on the other end of the phone, enraged that someone has stolen a tune that he’s been carefully work-shopping for over a year.

  3. gavinburrows says:

    I saw the original ‘Back to The Future’ recently and also noticed its assumptions about race. The point I’d make this that the racism black people faced in pre-Civil Rights America is not just diminished so much as trivialised. The only thing a black guy needs to happen for him to move from floorsweeper to Mayor is a short motivational speech. Not a prolonged political campaign to oppose entrenched institutional racism or anything like that, as if the whole problem was a lack of black aspiration. Similarly, the band of black musicians are happy to take on a white gang, as if the police and legal system wouldn’t be weighted against them.

    As you say, its unlikely any of this is intentional. Its probably mostly about perpetuating a nostalgist view of the Fifties as a nice place to hang out, when life was simpler and more homespun. Combined with the notion that we’re basically nice folks, really, so racism can’t ever have been that bad. The campaigns of the Civil Rights movement have gone from being ignored to being absorbed, without ever actually being acknowledged.

    • Mike Taylor says:

      “The campaigns of the Civil Rights movement have gone from being ignored to being absorbed, without ever actually being acknowledged.”

      As frustrating as that must be for the people who fought in that struggle, it’s actually the mark of how completely the movement succeeded.

      • gavinburrows says:

        They didn’t succeed, for all that they won advances. If they had, I don’t think there’d be any Black Lives Matter campaigns right now. There was an ex Black Panther guy on ‘Newsnight’ last night (whose name my middle-aged brain alas did not retain) who said he though the same issues affected black American communities today.

        And while of course you shouldn’t read too much into the rantings of idiots on the internet, only earlier tonight I read on this comments thread “The moment we had a black president all your crybabying went out the window. Suck it up buttercup, if you aren’t succeeding now its because of you”

        • Mike Taylor says:

          You’re right, of course, that I am over-simplifying when I say that the civil rights movement “succeeded”. I am particularly haunted by this recent article, Slow Poison: Even if the police don’t kill me, a lifetime of preparing for them to just might at http://www.psmag.com/health-and-behavior/even-if-the-police-dont-kill-me-a-lifetime-of-preparing-for-them-to-just-might

          Nevertheless: the transformation in attitudes since the 1950s, when those scenes in BTTF were set, and indeed the 1980s, when they were filmed, is extraordinary. My point was that there is much more to celebrate in the last 60 years than to bemoan.

          • gavinburrows says:

            ”My point was that there is much more to celebrate in the last 60 years than to bemoan.”

            I wouldn’t disagree there. My point would be that we would need to know how the Civil Rights movement made the gains it did if we’re going to stand any chance of pressing them further. Which correspondingly means those who don’t want to see any more gains will need to obscure all of that.

            And the first thing that’s obscured is that it was a movement. The mass of people who marched, got beaten up, got jailed and in no small amount of cases killed are swept offstage by a focus on a single figure – Dr. King. And then that figure is himself depoliticised, turned from a campaigner into a kind of motivational speaker who provided feel-good you-can-do-it soundbites. The stuff which looks good below the signatures of corporate climbers. Anyone else (such as the Panthers or Malcolm X) is only employed to look ‘extreme’ as a counterpose to how the freshly depoliticised Dr. King was ‘reasonable’. Which is all the more galling when you find out just how much a grassroots movement Civil Rights really was.

            Which is partlhy why I can’t agree with the more generous reading of the Mayor business. Firstly, its clear Marty plants the idea of becoming Mayor into Goldie’s head. But really, the only part that’s missing is him saying “you’ve just to believe you can”. As said, I don’t think this was a deliberate ploy on anybody’s part to bury the history of Civil Rights struggles. But that’s what’s going on.
            Most probably I didn’t make clear enough why I was quoting a random nut on the internet. In brief, I felt that with that quote he was making a useful idiot of himself. It’s a common meme to suggest that now we’ve had Civil Rights, surely anything you still can’t cope with is your own problem. Before Civil Rights, maybe black people were persecuted by cops. But now the do-gooder speeches have been made, if a black kid still gets killed surely he must have brought it on himself, right? Rightist wing-nuts make that argument all the time, but have the sense to phrase it more covertly. But that quote exposes what in substance they’re saying.

  4. prankster36 says:

    The Chuck Berry thing is a leftover from a MUCH weirder earlier draft in which Marty’s time travel causes drastic differences in the timeline and prevents rock and roll from being invented *at all*. When he returns home at the end, the world is even more overtly different than in the finished movie–it’s not just his parents and Biff who are different, the whole city is a Jetsons-esque futuristic city of flying cars (obviously this got worked into the “to be continued” ending with Doc) and, as I say, rock and roll doesn’t exist, allowing Marty to invent it in HIS time. I’m not sure if that’s better or worse.

    I’ve heard that Crispin Glover actually argued that there should be *something* wrong with the new timeline Marty comes home to, just to prove that screwing around with time isn’t all sunshine and roses. An interesting point, and it again seems like it inspired the Biffville timeline in part 2.

    At this point I’m compelled to ask if you’ve seen the animated series Rick and Morty, which was superficially inspired by BTTF? It’s one of the best things currently on television–unlike a lot of “comedy SF” it goes the Douglas Adams route of basing many of its comedic premises on actual SF ideas instead of just doing parodies. It’s good stuff, I highly recommend it.

  5. That’s an intriguing take on the films. While I can’t say I ever thought out my argument before as fully as you clearly have, my take on Back To The Future was always how positive they were on race. Back in his day society norms mean that Goldie Wilson is only a lowly janitor – but because Marty and his generation don’t have the prejudices of his parent’s generation they see his potential and what a great mayor he would make and he proves it too – in the case of getting elected at least. I’m not sure I ever picked up on how ‘his’ town seemed to be run down – will have to go back and have another watch sometime. As for the issue of rock and roll, Marty could have picked anybody to represent rock and roll and goodness knows there a lot of white names to choose from there: Buddy Holly, Elvis, he could have skipped a few years and picked The Beach Boys and The Beatles. Instead he goes for Chuck Berry as the epitome of everything that was great about rock and roll and the most important act he could have chosen. Stealing in music is usually the sincerest form of flattery after all! Interesting to see someone else’s take on these things anyway, thanks for another great article.

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